Retroactive Jealousy OCD: The Relationship Killer
How it kills relationships, and what you need to know to beat it
In an online forum for OCD, a Reddit user posted his experiences with a psychological condition dubbed as ‘Retroactive Jealousy’ or ‘RJ’. RJ is a form of OCD that manifests as extreme, irrational jealousy towards a partner’s sexual or romantic past; often paired with an incessant, compulsive drive to ask your partner intrusive questions about their past relationships, flings, or hookups. Many Redditers thanked him for making others aware of this previously poorly documented form of OCD. Others, including myself, could directly relate to his anecdotal report, recognising it as an aspect of their own battles with mental health and OCD. The difference in my case being that I had no idea I was suffering with a potential mental health issue, let alone OCD.
My own discovery of this Reddit post happened following intense feelings of jealousy towards my then-partner and her sexual past. Intrusive, irrational thoughts, anger, and judgments towards her were all part of the vicious cycle of what I then came to discover as Retroactive Jealousy, though also more pertinently, a case of ROCD (Relationship Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).
Reading the reports of this particular Reddit user shocked me due to the similarities in the nature of our intrusive thoughts, as well as the circumstances that had lead to them. He described having disturbing mental images of his partner engaging in a one-night stand she had previously had. Asides from the finer details of his own partner’s previous sexual encounters and that of my then partner’s, my thoughts similarly concerned anxieties regarding my own partner’s past sexual flings. He reported that after playing out the scenes in his head, he would mentally reassure himself, telling himself things like “she’s still the right girl for me”, unwittingly perpetuating the cycle of his symptoms. I too realised that I was engaging in these same thought patterns and loops. I was left facing the prospect that I may be dealing with the same disorder reported by this Reddit user, as well as many others in this particular OCD forum.
A breakdown of Retroactive Jealousy:
Retroactive Jealousy, besides being (mostly) mental, behaves in precisely the same way as more “conventional” forms of OCD. As it is perceived as being predominantly mental, it is thus commonly referred to as a form of “Pure-O” OCD i.e. “Purely Obsessive”, which implies that compulsions are entirely mental rather than physically acted out. This term, however, is slightly misleading.
More “conventional” types of OCD sufferers, who perform rituals or physical compulsions — such as checking a door is locked twenty times over — do these rituals due to an initial doubt or fear: “someone is going to break in — I need to lock the door”. Locking the door temporarily gives them the reassurance they seek, only to then further make the fear of losing their family and/or possessions even greater further down the line.
The RJ sufferer similarly has an initial doubt: “my partner isn’t right for me” or thoughts to that effect. The reaction to this can, despite what the term “Pure-O” suggests, be a physical compulsion i.e. searching the Internet for articles or forums to confirm or deny their fears, asking for reassurance from a friend or partner, or even causing a fight over something their partner previously admitted to them, leading them to compulsively break up out of anger or frustration — erroneously believing that ending the relationship will give them the relief they seek. The compulsion can conversely be a case of mentally reassuring themselves that they really do love their partner. In all cases, these compulsions prolong the cycle and lead to the urge to perform them worsening over time. Here is a chart to demonstrate:
Relationship OCD in its broader forms
Relationship OCD is typically ‘broader’ than RJ alone. In this sense, doubts can often arise due to issues not directly related to a partner’s sexual or intimate past. In fact, ROCD isn’t always necessarily doubts about a romantic partner. It can even be about a person’s relationship with members of their family, or even with God.
There are some common themes with Relationship OCD. Many who suffer from it tend to face issues regarding their romantic or family relationships rather than platonic or spiritual ones. Sophie Foster wrote a harrowing, and deeply personal article on her battle with ROCD, which had her constantly doubting her love for her partner:
‘OCD identifies the most precious thing in your life: your children, your partner, your parents — and threatens it by hijacking your mind. In my case, it tried to sabotage my relationship by making me believe that it wasn’t ‘right’, that one day I would leave him (even though I absolutely didn’t want to), that he would eventually walk out on me, or that my actions would somehow result in his death.’
Anecdotal reports like Sophie’s aren’t uncommon. People often report feeling constantly unsure about their partner and their relationship; finding faults or flaws in an attempt to undermine the relationship, such as questioning their partner’s attractiveness or intelligence. Retroactive Jealousy typically features sufferers focusing on similar flaws, though the flaws are often, though not entirely, directly related to the partner’s past sexual or romantic relationships. Here are some common themes that arise throughout all forms of ROCD:
Coping can be any method or strategy used in an attempt to avoid or ameliorate the anxiety that they’re feeling. It could involve mentally reassuring themselves, or asking their partner for reassurance. It can conversely be any other coping mechanism like getting drunk or getting high. The aim is essentially always to avoid the uncomfortable thoughts/feelings they’re experiencing rather than to face or accept them.
Checking can involve reading a partner’s messages, or stalking their social media to see what their previous partner(s) looked like — offering a false sense of sought reassurance. It can even be simply checking their own phone to see if their partner has replied to their message yet, which can in turn further their anxiety: “if they’ve replied then they really do love me” or “if they haven’t replied yet then they’re not the right one for me”. Checking essentially always boils down to trying to replace an uncertainty that the sufferer is facing by checking to see if things are okay.
Controlling doesn’t simply mean telling your partner what to wear, or telling them who they can or can’t hang out with. Most sufferers from ROCD would probably state they’d never do such a thing. However, there’s a good chance they may still be subtly trying to control the relationship and their partner in other, more covert ways. It can often be through persuasion or trying to make their partner feel guilty about something. Essentially, the need to control comes from the doubt and uncertainty the sufferer is feeling with respect to the relationship. The belief is that if they can just get more control over the relationship, or more control over their doubts and fears, then their anxieties will disappear. It is for this reason that controlling can be the most pernicious and most difficult part for many sufferers to face. The realisation that they can’t control everything — let alone what thoughts their brain sends them — can be a bitter pill to swallow, but it is essentially the key to liberation from the cripples of this disorder.
Mark Freeman, a former sufferer of OCD as well as various other mental health disorders, breaks these points down further into what he terms as “The Anatomy of a Compulsion:
Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt:
A term used online in cryptocurrency communities like Bitcoin, and one I feel is particularly relevant to Retroactive Jealousy is “FUD” a.k.a. fear, uncertainty, and doubt. FUD is typically used as an acronym to signify the spread of fear-mongering propaganda in relation to changes in cryptocrrency markets. Here are some examples to show how FUD can similarly be applied to Retroactive Jealousy:
Fear over losing one’s partner, of ending up alone; fear that they won’t be able to provide for their partner or satisfy them, or that their partner’s past relationships or sexual encounters were somehow more meaningful or novel.
Uncertainty about their partner’s sexual or romantic past, their behaviours, and a felt “need to know” about details of their previous intimate, or sexual, encounters.
Doubts about the future of the relationship, their partner’s suitability, or other aspects of their partner’s lifestyle or personality.
The bottom line is that if you’re suffering from ROCD, and you want to make real, lasting changes to your mental health and wellbeing, then, you need to be willing to accept fears, uncertainty, and doubts, and make deep, behavioural changes to let your brain know that the fears and doubts it sends you aren’t useful.
If you respond to thoughts with judgment, anger, disgust, or fear, then you’re giving power to another wise benign occurrence. Thoughts aren’t real. OCD thoughts, in particular, aren’t real — they’re thoughts. You can just as easily think about pink elephants riding on roller-skates doing backflips as you can think about your partner sleeping with somebody else. The problem that most sufferers frequently encounter is that their OCD thoughts feel so real.
What some folk have found useful is relabeling their intrusive thoughts by mentally affirming: “it’s not me, it’s OCD”. This technique is commonly advocated in Jeffry Schwartz’s “Four Steps to Recovering from OCD”. I’d personally suggest taking this one step further by incorporating some mindfulness techniques.
First, start by simply observing the thought and welcome it in, accepting any uncomfortable feelings that arise with it. Next, when you’ve sat with it, instead of simply labelling it as “OCD”, try picking one of these simple questions and mentally ask yourself: “did I think this — or did OCD?” or even: “who thought this?” Can you really be sure that “you” placed that thought there yourself — or did it just come up? Where the hell did it even come from? If you could choose your thoughts, why would you choose ones that make you feel so uncomfortable? Inquiring into the thought like this can be a powerful process that with time, and effort, weakens their pull significantly.
The takeaway from all this is that you can’t choose your thoughts but you can choose not to take ownership of them. It’s hard work, and it takes courage, commitment, and a willingness to change. What I personally suggest is to first try incorporating practices, such as not responding to coping, checking, or controlling behaviours even in small areas of your life. If you’re constantly checking social media, or your phone, try to wean off it. If you’re using porn or alcohol to cope with your feelings, set yourself a goal of two to three months without drinking or watching porn. You’ll find that by not giving into these superficial, “smaller”, compulsions, that you’ll be better equipped to deal with the bigger ones as and when they arise — like suddenly getting the compulsion to ask your partner how many people they’ve slept with.
Try to replace coping mechanisms with accepting feeling uncomfortable at times. Replace checking compulsions with the allowing of the urge to check something arise, and letting go of the need to do it. Lastly, replace controlling compulsions with loving your partner for who they are right now, recognising how they wouldn’t be who they are without all of their past flings, relationships, heartbreaks and so on, and realising that it’s okay not to always be in control, or to constantly have certainty. There’s actually a Buddhist term for this called metta, often translated as“loving-kindness”, which can give you a feel for the kind of loving you’re aiming for. This last point on loving may even feel somewhat like forgiving your partner, even though they haven’t wronged you. It’s a complicated process as to why it may feel like you’re forgiving them, but what is of salience is that loving, and forgiving, both work in overcoming ROCD.
It’s worth noting that these accepting, letting go, and loving practices are tactile ones — not intellectual. Experientially, as well as qualitatively, they all feel the same. This can be hard to get a feel for some folk who constantly live in their heads, trying to rationalise everything. I personally struggled with that for months, thinking my rational mind could somehow override the emotional side. The good news is, however, that once you get the feel for these aforementioned practices, you can summon those feelings up time and again to feel your way into acceptance/letting go/love. You can get to a point where you see your fears, uncertainties, and doubts arise, and accept them lovingly for what they are: feelings that simply make you human.
Final thoughts on therapy, ERP, and recovery
I strongly recommend anyone suffering from ROCD seek a skilled therapist experienced in dealing with Pure-O OCD who can diagnose and treat this issue accordingly. I also strongly suggest checking out the YouTube channel of Mark Freeman. His books and videos helped me tremendously on my road to recovery from this disorder.
A final word of warning is that if you suffer from ROCD yourself, and you don’t resolve these issues now, in your current relationship, they will continue to arise in every relationship you ever get into. If it’s your partner’s sexual past that bothers you, as it was in my case, dating someone less promiscuous won’t magically make these issues go away. Instead of obsessing about things your partner has done in the past, you’ll obsess about things they could do in the future, or how you could end up losing them. That may be uncomfortable to hear but it’s the truth. The only way to resolve these issues is to face them head-on, and be open and accepting to feeling uncomfortable at times. It is precisely for this reason that Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is consistently favoured as the form of therapy best suited to treating OCD.
What ERP does is expose the sufferer to their anxieties, and has them prevent their “response” of performing a compulsion in reaction to it. For instance, if you are plagued with thoughts of a one-night stand your partner had in the past, and your compulsion is to play out the scene in your head, try sitting with the feelings that thought produces without trying to play out the scene or analyse it further, or reassuring yourself to make things seem alright. ERP consistently works for treating OCD. Equipped with the right understanding and application of ERP, as well as implementing behavioural changes to reflect your values, you stand a great chance of recovery. Folks commonly report successfully treating this disorder within 6 months. There’s no reason why, with diligent practice of ERP and acceptance of uncomfortable feelings, you, or someone you love, cannot recover in even less time than that.
Finally, if you’ve experienced Retroactive Jealousy yourself, or are in a relationship with someone who has, please leave a comment below. Similarly, if you’d never heard about RJ until now and found this article insightful, please let me know by hitting respond.